Are All Carbs Equal? A Look at Simple Versus Complex Carbohydrates

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By : dLife Editors

After a great class at the gym, your fitness instructor may shout out, “drink plenty of water and make sure you have some protein and complex carbs!”

What exactly does this mean, and what is the difference between the different type of carbohydrates?

We’ll take a closer look simple and complex carbohydrates so next time you finish your work-out, you’ll know exactly what types of foods to reach for!

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, commonly referred to as carbs are one of three macronutrients, along with protein and fat that fuel the body to function properly.

When the body digests these macronutrients, they are all broken down in a way the body can use them as energy. Carbs are broken down into sugar, which is immediately available for use by the cells for energy.

This is why people with Type 2 diabetes need to be cautious about how many carbs they consume because eating too many can quickly spike your blood sugars.

Proteins are broken down into amino acids, and fat is broken down into fatty acids. Both of these byproducts are stored in the body for later use.

What are Simple Carbs?

Simple carbs are small molecules or simple structures made up of monosaccharides or disaccharides. Glucose and fructose are monosaccharides. Lactose and sucrose are examples of disaccharides.

Simple carbs are easy to digest. After the are processed, they pass through the bloodstream and are used for energy. Whatever is not consumed is converted to fat and stored. This explains why eating too many simple carbs can contribute to weight gain.

However, simple carbs are also a part of a healthy diet and contain many benefits like vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. Fruits are an example of a simple carb that is full of vitamins and minerals, and dairy is another example. There are certain vegetables and grains that are also simple carbs.

Some examples of simple sugars include:

  • Sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup
  • Glucose, fructose, and sucrose
  • Fruit juice

What are Complex Carbs?

As the name implies, complex carbs are more “complex” chains of sugar molecules. Because of this reason, it takes a longer time for the body to break them down.

This means they are slower to affect blood-sugar levels and are recommended for people with diabetes.

When looking for complex carbs in the grocery store, look for specific attributes of complex carbs such as items that are made with whole grain, like brown rice and whole-grain barley and bulgar or cracked wheat.

Quinoa has become quite a trend lately and it might be because it’s an example of a complex carb.

Other great sources of complex carbs are non-starchy vegetables, beans, and lentils. These foods are also rich in fiber, which is very useful in preventing blood sugar levels from getting too high. It’s important to make sure the complex carbs you do consume are not processed into refined grains.

Foods made from refined grains include cakes, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, pastries, some cereal, crackers, pancakes, waffles, white bread, and white rice.

Some examples of complex carbs include:

  • Whole grains like brown rice, barley, or bulgar
  • Bread made with whole grains like barley, rye, oats, and whole wheat
  • Quinoa
  • Starchy vegetables like pumpkin, sweet potato, and squash
  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Beans and other legumes such as chickpeas, kidney beans, black and pinto beans
  • Steel-cut or old fashioned oats

The biggest difference between a simple and complex carb is in how quickly it is digested and absorbed by the body, as well as it’s chemical structure.

It’s important to read nutrition labels to help decide if the product is a simple or complex carb. Also, take note of where on the list you see this ingredient. The higher on the list, the more prevalent the ingredient.

Keep in mind that simple carbs aren’t always the bad guy. They are found in many important foods such as fruits and can be a part of a balanced diet.

Did you learn enough about carbs? Test your knowledge with our 12-Question Carb Quiz.


  1. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Carbohydrates: How carbs fit into a healthy diet.
  2. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Carbohydrates: Quality Matters.
  3. Mozaffarian D, Hao T, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. N Engl J Med. 2011;364:2392-404.